by Emma Cooper
I headed off to Viljandi County in Estonia earlier this summer (via Amsterdam and Frankfurt – I made it late but intact; my luggage did not!), on a fact-finding trip to see their Rural Parliament.
The Estonia Rural Parliament was the second Rural Parliament to be formed, after Sweden, and has now been active for 21 years. That made this the 12th Rural Parliament held, as they take place every two years like ours, and a good example of how a well-established rural movement celebrates its successes and discusses its challenges. I was keen to learn a bit about the event structure, but more about the rural movement that sits behind the event.
The Rural Parliament took place over three days and brought together 350 people, including senior Government politicians and a handful of international guests. The aim of the event is “to discuss the issues and look for solutions to the problems facing rural development”. In practice, there are three elements of the event: celebration (this is key!); idea sharing and networking; and a manifesto which seeks to influence decision-making.
The Estonians like to party, and they have far more stamina than I! The whole event was a glorious mix of music, food, drink, dancing, and awards, from early in the morning until – well, early in the morning! A home-made feel to the event added to the joy, with people of all ages coming together to celebrate their national rural community.
The event started with a parade through the nearest town with flag waving and music. Participants were frequently encouraged to get out of their seats and dance, clap and sing-along throughout the whole event.
For dinner, each region of Estonia contributed their best produce for the buffet style meal on the first evening and placed this proudly on their own table, before inviting everyone to work their way along the tables (in a disorderly fashion) and sample their wares. Creamy cheese, dark beer and smoked fish were amongst the delicious offerings from across the country. Wine is a more recent product of Estonia and there were lively conversations about adding value to a product and diversifying farm incomes.
Later in the event each region showed a short home-made film about a project they had completed, interspersed with cultural entertainment from each area – from the six year old singer to the elderly folk dancing club.
There was the World’s Best Village Award and the Best Estonian Bread Award (we all got to vote – heaven!), and so many other awards I lost track. This felt like a genuine, joyful, coming together of people with shared problems, to celebrate their successes and simply spend time with others who shared their values.
- Idea sharing & networking
As with most events of this sort, there were a number of workshops taking place. These took place over a half-day and focused on sharing ideas and good practice between participants, which is a different approach to the workshops we have held at the Scottish Rural Parliament.
The workshop I attended examined the impact and best use of LEADER funding (for the uninitiated, this is European Rural Development Programme providing funding opportunities for communities, small rural business and farm diversification projects). We went on to discuss the best uses of funding in the future, and in particular discussed potential collaborative projects between the international guests at the event.
For me, there was a useful and interesting discussion about community-led visioning, and potential exchanges between Scotland and other European countries to examine our commonalities and our differences, to aid us in identifying our own strengths and areas for development. If anyone is interested in taking this further, please get in touch.
At the end of the event Kodukant, the organising body, handed over their Manifesto (which you can see here: https://kodukant.ee/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Manifesto-Estonian-Rural-Parliament-XII-2017.pdf) and politicians gave a brief response. Unlike in Scotland, the Manifesto was all agreed before the event, taking some of the pressure off the organisers and allowing for more forward-planning at the event.
There was then an amusing exchange as one politician committed to delivering on the Manifesto in the next six months, and the other hurriedly back-tracked on that commitment!